by Doc Searls
The use of paid shills to create the impression of a popular movement, through means like letters to newspapers from soi-disant 'concerned citizens', paid opinion pieces, and the formation of grass-roots lobbying groups that are actually funded by a PR group (astroturf is fake grass; hence the term).
- The Jargon File <http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/>
By Doc Searls
Back at Linux World Expo in January, Paul Ferris, then an editor with LinuxToday, asked if he could speak to me privately about a matter that was bothering him deeply. After extracting a promise that I would respect the confidentiality of what he had to say, he told me the story that he finally told publicly on Linux Journal's Web site (see LinuxToday.com: Blowing the Whistle) on August 6.
According to Paul, Kevin Reichard, then an Executive Editor with LinuxToday, "astroturfed" the "Talkbacks" to stories using pseudonyms such as "George Tirebiter" (a character familiar to fans of Firesign Theater). Paul believed this broke faith with readers, with the Linux community, and with LinuxToday's own stated principles. Paul says he confronted Reichard about the issue, and took it to others higher up the Internet.com chain of command when it was clear that Reichard would neither stop nor admit to having been caught. Paul was told, more or less, to pound sand.
After bringing the issue up again in May, Paul was laid off in a round of personnel cutbacks (though he continued to work through June 29). Back in March Marty Pitts, one of LinuxToday's original editors, was also dismissed. Paul reports that Pitts also had differences with Reichard, and was aware of the "Talkback problem". On July 19 the "astroturfing" story broke on Slashdot. The next week Paul called me seeking advice, and I suggested he tell the story himself, provided he was absolutely certain of his facts.
Two days after Paul's piece ran on the Linux Journal Web site. After Slashdot picked it up, LinuxToday published an Editor's Note by Kevin Reichard apologizing for posting falsely in story Talkbacks, even though, he added, "I used pseudonyms like George Tirebiter which I believed readers would understand was a contrivance," and "Some people did not catch on.".
The next day Michael Hall posted another Editor's Note announcing what in a political context would sound like a communiqué issued after a coup e'etat: "I have been effectively running LinuxToday for the past few weeks. Kevin Reichard asked to be reassigned within the company and he has been phasing out his involvement in Internet.com Linux channel. As of earlier this week, I took over the reins completely."
In language reminiscent of tobacco industry PR, Hall writes, "We will also not permit the use of pseudonyms by staff members in our talkbacks. Though debate continues on the acceptability of the practice, that debate will invariably involve gray areas that we believe are best avoided by forbidding the practice."
I don't know Kevin Reichart or Michael Hall personally. I do know Paul Ferris, and I know the hell he went through over the last eight months. Though it was hard for him, and he faults himself for not trying harder, Paul did stand up for what was right, and risked his job trying to help LinuxToday solve its problems from the inside. Even if that's not what what cost him his job, it clearly did nothing to help him keep it.
When I look at Michael Hall's Editor's Note, and at all the helpful responses in its Talkbacks, I can't help thinking that what Paul and Michael did together was expose LinuxToday's bug list in a way that invited interested eyeballs to help make those bugs shallow. In effect, the whole thing got turned over to the Bazaar.
The bug that interests me most is the one exposed by this question: Why would a news organization, least of all one serving a community profoundly skilled at detecting BS in all its forms, think even for a second that posting falsely about one's own stories could be anything other than flat-out wrong and ultimately very embarrassing?
Yeah, astroturfing, trolling, flame-baiting and other attention-provoking posting tricks have been around since the dawn of Usenet; and even Benjamin Franklin took perverse promotional pleasure from writing letters to Poor Richard's Almanac over the signatures of "Martha Careful" and "Caelia Shortface" (among many other pseudonyms, most of which were female).
But LinuxToday isn't a newsgroup, or a forum like Slashdot, where nearly all the action happens in the postings. Nor is it operating at the dawn of modern journalism. It's a 21st Century news publication on the World Wide Web. Its home page is called Breaking News. Each of its items is a story. There's plenty of room for discussion in each story's Talkback section, and a whole Community Discussions space on the site; but fundamentally LinuxToday is an up-to-the-second newspage, with a name that suggests a daily paper.
But to Internet.com, LinuxToday is just one of seventeen content conduits in its Linux/Open Source channel, one of the sixteen that constitute Internet.com's TV-like "network." And therein lies the rub. Because publication and channel are as different as ice cream and motor oil. Both operate on very different conceptual metaphors, which express themselves in very different vocabularies, both of which Michael Hall employs in his Editor's Note. As a publication LinuxToday has "stories" for "readers" in a "community" that it serves with "honesty," "trust," all those other virtues to which good publications aspire. As a channel it has "content" that is "viewed" by an "audience."
These differences may sound subtle but they are not. They are the sides taken in the argument betwen Kevin Reichard and Marty Pitts that Paul shared in his piece:
Marty: This gets us to the philosophy of keeping the readers in the channel at all costs. Something I strongly disagree with.
Kevin: It is our policy to keep people in the channel. The same for every other Web site in the world. Keeping people on our sites pays our bills and your salary.
That argument was a fight for the soul of LinuxToday. Marty believed LinuxToday was a publication. Kevin believed it was a channel. For a few months Kevin's side prevailed (especially since taking the argument up the chain of command also moved it deeper into the channel mentality). Now, thanks to Paul, Marty's side is back in charge (even though Kevin, Paul and Marty are now all gone). This leaves Michael with the difficult job, as the LinuxToday's sole full-time editor, of constantly reconciling both sides. It's gotta be hell.
It helps that he got very forgiving slack (including a warm endorsement by Paul) in the Talkback that followed his Editor's Note. Significantly, nobody encouraged LinuxToday to think like a channel. That should make Michael's future editorial decisions a little easier.
Magazines and newspapers have been around long enough to have embodied lessons that dot-com publications like LinuxToday are still learning. The ethical separation of church (editorial) and state (publishing) may be more fictive than many of us on either side would like to admit, but at least the sides are clear, and lots of useful defaults are there to make decisions for us.
That's why, when IDG and others created The Industry Standard, they made it an indispensible editorial product. There was nothing channel-like about it, either in print or on the Web. And it was an excellent publication. I've subscribed to all the major magazines that covered the the late "New Economy" -- The Industry Standard, Upside, Red Herring, Fast Company, Business 2.0... Plus all the business pubs fattened by the same advertisers -- Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal. The only one I read every week, almost cover to cover, was the Standard.
As I write this in August, the Standard's corpse is still warm. It was put to sleep just yesterday, "suspending publication" while it reorganizes under Chapter 11. While readers and writers are still in shock, the gathering wisdom on the matter is simply that there isn't enough advertising business to sustain publication. But the real reason is that the Standard's business shifted from selling advertising and subscriptions to selling itself: it became a dot-com. The company pulled in venture capital, spent lavishly on expansion, hired lots of people and established enormous overhead obligations that it would never have taken on if it hadn't headed down the IPO trail. One report said the lease obligations alone exceeded $60 million per year.
In other words, it built a terrific Church in the wrong state. They made good decisions about editorial, but bad ones about publishing. If they had stuck to what IDG does best, which is put out magazines, they would still be around.
The best trade and specialty publications -- in business, technology, fashion or whatever -- are ones in which the state adds real value to the church. In those publications, the advertisers are part of the community, and the advertising serves as a form of editorial content. Everybody is involved in a relationship betwen the readers, writers and businesses. The publication's job is to bring them together on a regular basis.
You lose that when the publication turnes into just another "channel", or when the publisher subordinates the market for its goods to the market for itself.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. His next book will be Real Markets: What They Are and How They Work.